Best Things To Do In London: Light up The Big Smoke
Don’t leave London without seeing these top attractions. By Paul Oswell | October 15, 2021 (Updated May 20, 2022)
There’s an almost inexhaustible amount of things to do in London. And while many of the famous landmarks are centuries-old, the city is also a modern world capital with futuristic architecture and trend-setting fashion. In one afternoon, you can take a ride on the London Eye, have lunch high up in a gleaming glass and steel skyscraper and explore Contemporary masterpieces at the Tate Modern — all before retiring for an afternoon pint in a 600-year-old pub.
Capital ideas for making your London memories:
Royal treatment: See world-famous regal sights such as Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and the iconic Tower of London and Tower Bridge
Curtain’s up: Choose from any number of West End stage shows, performed at historic theaters by famous actors
On the shopping block: Wander through the huge department stores around Oxford Street and the must-visit boutiques of Covent Garden
Buckingham Palace and London museums
If it’s your first time visiting, then you’ll likely want to tick off the big-ticket sights first: Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, London Eye, Westminster and St Paul’s Cathedral are all in central London and you can easily walk between them.
Lots of tourists take the hop-on hop-off bus tours, but if you don’t care about the commentary, just head upstairs on a famous London double-decker and be transported past the very same sights for a minimal fare (check routes at tfl.gov.org.).
Speaking of saving money, the city’s best museums are also mostly free. Arrive early and you’ll enjoy a relatively crowd-free experience. The main attractions are The British Museum and the Victoria & Albert for history; The National Gallery, Tate Britain and the Tate Modern for art; and the Natural History Museum for science.
Where to shop in London
If you love to shop, check out Oxford Street’s flagship department stores, or head to Knightsbridge, Hyde Park and Chelsea for their upscale boutiques. If you have an eye for a more expressive look, trendy street styles pop up in the east, around Shoreditch and Hackney. Some of the best markets include Portobello for antiques, Columbia Road for flowers and design and Borough Market for artisanal food, with plenty of free tasting samples to try before you buy.
The South Bank complex has everything from restaurants and food trucks to the high culture of the National Theater and the Royal Festival Hall to the popular British Film Institute (BFI) and the London IMAX. It also has the best views of the River Thames, especially from Waterloo Bridge or the Hungerford and Golden Jubilee bridges. There’s a great second-hand book stall just outside the BFI, so make sure to browse here before seeing a movie.
London pubs and entertainment venues
When considering things to do in London, pub culture is king. If you’re feeling social, Soho and Covent Garden are buzzing with pubs, restaurants and nightlife. Compton Street is home to many LGTBQ-run venues, or head east to Shoreditch, Hoxton or Dalston for trendier dance parties and hip cocktail spots.
Seeing live entertainment is a must, too. Buy a cheap matinee ticket for one of the many West End theaters and see a musical or a play; many have A-list stars in the cast. The price can’t be beaten, and it frees up your evening so you can head to the bars just as they’re livening up with post-work crowds.
Or, step onto the world stage at one of the city’s huge festivals. Among the best known is the Notting Hill Carnival, an annual Caribbean party that has taken place in London since 1966 on the last weekend in August. Chinese New Year (late January), the Chelsea Flower Show (May), the classical music extravaganza of The Proms (August) and The London Film Festival (November) are also great.
Parks and gardens
London is a walking town, and the sprawling parks are a delight to explore. Regent’s Park is home to London Zoo and some very English rose gardens. Make time for the Japanese Garden Island with its aromatic wisteria. You can emerge to Buckingham Palace views from the tranquility of Green Park, or delight adults and little ones a like with a paddleboat ride on The Serpentine in Hyde Park (London’s oldest boating lake).
Where to eat in London
When considering things to do in London, food culture may not be the most obvious choice, but it is an excellent one nonetheless. The city’s culinary scene has historically been poked fun at, but after reinventing itself, it now has more than 60 Michelin-starred restaurants. Foodies will want to hunt out the Asian delicacies of Chinatown, the curries and Indian dishes of Brick Lane and the creative mix of world cultures at Tooting Market, where you can sample Guyanese and Mauritian fare. The previously mentioned Borough Market is a hub for sustainable dining and offers the chance to sample some of the city's most celebrated names and traders.
There’s plenty to appreciate beyond central London, too. Take the Tube or the bus to Brixton, home to a dynamic West Indian and African population, which is alive with Caribbean music and daily markets featuring alluring street food stalls. Most of London’s neighborhoods are incredibly diverse, reflected in everything from the Latin clubs of Camden to the Jewish bakeries of Stamford Hill.
London’s historic cityscape and world-famous sights mean that a sense of place is immediate, even for first-time visitors. From exploring the hallowed halls of Westminster Abbey and the Natural History Museum to traversing the Tower Bridge and getting that perfect London Eye photo, there are countless things to do in London — no matter how many times you visit.
Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer, and has been reporting from all seven continents for over twenty years. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small.”